The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the Tamil Nadu government’s authority to notify an ‘elephant corridor’ and protect the migratory path of the animals through the Nilgiri biosphere reserve.
The reserve is the largest protected forest area in India, spanning across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde said it is the State’s duty to protect a “keystone species” like elephants, which are immensely important to the environment.
The corridor is situated in the ecologically fragile Sigur plateau, which connects the Western and the Eastern Ghats and sustains elephant populations and their genetic diversity. It has the Nilgiri hills on its southwestern side and the Moyar river valley on its northeastern side. The elephants cross the plateau in search of food and water depending on the monsoon.
“Elephant corridors allow elephants to continue their nomadic mode of survival, despite shrinking forest cover, by facilitating travel between distinct forest habitats... these corridors play a crucial role in sustaining wildlife by reducing the impact of habitat isolation,” Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, who wrote the judgment, observed.
The Supreme Court judgment came on 32 appeals filed by resorts/private land owners, including Bollywood actor Mithun Chakraborty, against a Madras High Court decision of July 2011. The High Court had confirmed a State government order of August 2010, notifying the elephant corridor.
The court set up a three-member inquiry committee of former Madras HC judge, Justice K. Venkatraman; Ajay Desai, consultant to World Wide Fund for Nature-India; and Praveen Bhargava, trustee of Wildlife First. Appellants can approach the committee in four months with their complaints against the action taken by the Nilgiris Collector, which included sealing of their buildings, and allegations about the “arbitrary variance in acreage of the elephant corridor”.
The court had made its empathy for the pachyderms clear even during the hearing of the case.
“The elephant is a gentleman and man should give way for the elephant,” Chief Justice Bobde had said before reserving the case for judgment on January 22.
The court had taken serious note of a report filed by amicus curiae, advocate A.D.N. Rao, to seal or demolish 821 buildings, except tribal houses, within the areas marked as elephant corridor by the Tamil Nadu government. Mr. Rao had suggested a rehabilitation plan for 186 households belonging to Scheduled Caste, Backward Caste and Most Backward Caste people.
Chief Justice Bobde had refused to go into individual grievances raised by private land owners against the August 2010 notification under the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest Act of 1949.
When some of the resort owners had proferred their view that elephant and man do co-exist, Chief Justice Bobde had wryly replied that, “It is because the elephant is a gentleman… Why do you have to go inside the forest?”
In 2011, the High Court had held that the government was authorised by the Centre's ‘Project Elephant’ to earmark the corridor since there was no impediment in the Wildlife Protection Act.
It had held that the State government’s action to identify the corridor was in complete obligation to its duties under Article 51-A(g) of the Constitution, which said it was the duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment, including wildlife.
The Supreme Court appreciated the efforts of advocate ‘Elephant’ Rajendran, whose petition under ‘In Defence of Environment and Animals’ sought protection for the free movement of elephants.